by Nicolette Peñaranda—

Before my first call as a pastor, I served as a pastoral intern at a Lutheran congregation and school in Argentina. My supervisor there spoke as much English as I did Spanish (not much). Transcending the language barrier would be key.

It’s hard being called to a vocation that involves authentic relationships when you lack the tools to communicate. Verbal communication is like a screwdriver with removable bits. With words you can convey love, sadness, displeasure and curiosity. Without a shared language, I would just sit and nod during meetings, trying to catch a few words in conversation. Needless to say pastoral care was difficult.

With the school’s approval, I found an activity I could lead without being able to speak the language. To connect with the students—most of whom were not part of the congregation—I led a mural-painting project. We spent recreos, or recess, with brushes in our hands, creating an original artwork that spoke to the school’s Lutheran heritage and their Argentine identity. So we incorporated portraits of Martin Luther and the artist Frida Kahlo, images of baptism with the hand of God, an Argentinian flag and symbols attributed to los Pueblos Originarios (the indigenous people of Argentina). These moments were sweet, but I often felt they weren’t enough. Did spending a few minutes a day together in silence really foster authentic relationships?

Then tragedy hit. Three of our students lost their lives. The school closed for several days as the entire community gathered to celebrate the girls who had died. Groups of us walked through the town to lament at their wakes. Grieving, I returned to the mural and painted. For three hours, I sat on the empty patio and incorporated memorial ballet slippers laced into the hand of God. I posted a photo of the mural, now with the slippers, on Instagram. Students shared the image, and eventually it reached the parents who had lost their girls.

The following day one of the grieving parents told a teacher he felt his daughter was present in those ballet slippers—her beautiful life represented in this simple piece of art.

Later that afternoon school staff summoned me to the patio to meet the parents of another one of the girls—the mother’s only child. The father was snapping photos, while the mother stared at the image on the wall. The mother gave me a warm embrace. Her husband did the same, saying, “Thank you. Thank you.” Two days earlier I’d struggled for the words to convey my sympathies; now we were able to connect over this piece of art. This experience exposed me to a new way to live in relationship. As cliché as it may sound, actions do speak louder than words. Daily engaging with students through art carried more weight than small talk ever could. Lamenting with the community and painting ballet shoes spoke more to the families than anything I could have possibly said. Relationships can—and do—transcend words.

The Rev. Nicolette Peñaranda serves as pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in Chicago. She is also the program director for DOOR Network and creator of MONadvocacy, a racial justice facilitation workshop.

This article is from the April 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.

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